WASHINGTON — Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole said Monday that he disregarded internal advice and decided not tell the public in advance about aggressive new screening and pat-down procedures for airline passengers, fearing terrorists could try to exploit the information.
In an hour-long discussion with reporters, Pistole said media officials at the Department of Homeland Security had urged him to "get out ahead" of the potential controversy by formally announcing plans for enhanced body searches and the use of new X-ray and radio-wave imaging devices at 70 airports beginning in November.
But doing so would have provided a "roadmap or blueprint for terrorists" to avoid detection by using other airports where the new technology wasn't in place, Pistole said.
Rather than publicize the changes, Pistole said he made a "risk-based" decision to roll it out first and "try to educate the public after we did that."
The result has been a firestorm of criticism from lawmakers and passengers who claim the technology and aggressive searches are unnecessary, intrusive and a violation of their privacy rights.
Nevertheless, a CBS News poll last week showed that 81 percent of respondents support the use of full-body X-ray scanners, while 15 percent oppose them and 4 percent are undecided.
However, a new ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 64 percent of Americans support the enhanced screening machines, compared with 32 percent who oppose them. On the pat-downs, 48 percent see them as justified, while 50 percent say they go too far, the poll showed.
Several groups are urging fliers to boycott the new procedures on Wednesday, when millions of people will jam airports to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Passengers who refuse to go through the screening machines will have to undergo a pat-down search in order to board the plane. Children under 12 are exempt from the searches.
The uproar prompted Pistole to pledge Sunday to make security checks "as minimally invasive as possible." But Monday, Pistole said any modifications would come over the long-term and not in time to affect holiday travelers this week.
Brian Sodergren of Ashburn, Va., set up a National Opt-Out Day website earlier this month. He's urging passengers to refuse the screening machines and undergo a pat-down.
"I certainly think there's enough unanswered questions with the scanners that I think folks should opt-out of them, as the TSA allows, on the 24th and every other day they travel," Sodergren said in an e-mail.
Pistole, however, urged fliers to follow security protocol. He said it's unclear how the protest will unfold, but that he worries for passengers who could "miss a flight because a group of people are blocking access or because they're taking extended periods of time," with the protest.
"I feel bad for those people who would not be protesting and just want to get home to have time with loved ones," Pistole said.
David Stempler, the president of the Air Travelers Association, said he's hoping fliers don't use one of the busiest travel days of the year to make a political statement. He said critics of the new security measures should write to TSA about their concerns.
"I think the protesters are trying to make things better for passengers, and this is not going to do it. This is going to make it worse," Stempler said of the protest. "I'm hoping cooler heads will prevail."
While more people may call for pat-down searches, it may not be because of the protest. The holiday will bring out more passengers with medical conditions who may opt for the manual searches to avoid small levels of radiation emitted by the X-ray machines, Stempler said.
Because many passengers haven't yet experienced the new measures, TSA will make public service announcements at airports to explain the new procedures.
While Wednesday's travel could be "potentially complicated by the protest," Pistole said the TSA would be fully staffed and prepared to handle all complaints.
"We'll see what happens," he said.
The Department of Homeland Security began working on the new security measures after the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt last year. He said the stepped-up searches were implemented after covert testers from the Government Accountability Office and TSA were able to get contraband past airport screeners.
Saturday, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula detailed how inexpensive and simple it was to engineer last month's failed cargo-bomb plots in which two explosive-laced ink toner cartridges were intercepted before reaching their scheduled targets in Chicago.
The operation cost only $4,200 and was part of a new strategy to use smaller attacks against the U.S., according to the group's newsletter, which was posted on militant websites.
McClatchy reported last week that on a possible solution to the controversy: modified radio-wave scanners that highlight potential contraband while providing operators only a generic image of the body instead of the passenger's actual form.
That technology, which emits no ionizing X-rays, is currently being used in Amsterdam's Schiphol International Airport. It was deployed after 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called "underwear bomber," boarded a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit last Christmas with enough explosives to bring down the plane.
The TSA is testing similar devices, Pistole said, but the machines have so far provided too many "false positive" readings.
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